DVD: Konig der letzten Tage (1993)

December 29, 2013 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: ARD Video (Germany)/ Region: 2 (PAL) / Released: 2010

Genre: TV Mini-series / Historical Drama

Synopsis: Vivid and energetic dramatization of John of Leiden’s role in the Munster Rebellion between 1534-1535, and his efforts to maintain power over citizens while troops besieged the city’s environs.

Special Features: Disc 1 – On-set Interview with co-star Mario Adorf (2:37) + trailer gallery/ Disc 2 — Director Interview from 1993 (6:29) / 12-page colour booklet with cast & crew, episode synopses, and profile of director Tom Toelle.

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Review:

Before his award-winning performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchanined (2012), and not to forget Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Christoph Waltz had already built a solid C.V. of roles in German film and TV productions. The actor’s stage training served him well in playing John of Leiden, an Anabaptist leader who reigned over the people of Munster between 1534-1535 before Catholic Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck and his troops regained control and executed Leiden + two other leaders.

Based on an historical novel by Manfred Purzer, director Tom Toeller’s two-part teleplay is a raw, robust portrayal of a grungy Germany, where a swathe of paranoid poor were easily swayed by charismatic figures who preached hope when the popular worldview was teetering on utter nihilism. Anabaptists – deemed dangerous radicals by Catholics for their rejection of baptizing infants and questioning popular doctrines – were persecuted and murdered to dissuade further conversions to the renegade faith, and Purzer’s tale begins when travelling comedian Sebastian (Otto Kukla) saves the life of farm girl Engele (Deborah Kaufmann) after her family’s strung up by Catholic thugs.

The pair venture to the walled city of Munster, and during a show for the locals they notice people suddenly massing to hear the words of Leiden, a dynamic figure preaching a better world if only they allowed themselves to be re-baptized and follow the words of Jan Mattys – the spiritual leader who baptized Leiden and saved him from debauched life as a manager of a brothel.

Displeased with the power and religious shift within Munster, Bishop von Waldeck (Mario Adorf) sends his troops and maintains a siege which lasts until 1535, during which Mattys is killed and Leiden assumes not only leadership of Munster, but proclaims the city as a New Jerusalem with him as its king. Citing precedent in scriptures, Leiden also legalizes polygamy, and reigns over an ailing, starving population until the city’s retaken.

Although a highly evocative production – props, costumes and sets were recreated in loving detail, including a full scale version of Munster’s old city square in the former Czechoslovakia – the real magnet is Waltz’ mesmerizing performance of an opportunist who takes advantage of needy minds, promising a better life and delivering an illusion, all while ingratiating himself in whatever top-level and fringe benefits he can acquire and maintain.

Director Toelle was criticized for taking some overt dramatic license with historical facts, but the teleplay generally follows the events which led to Leiden’s reign and capture. In the DVD’s interview featurette, he acknowledges the series could be seen as a critique of the seeds which led to the Nazis assuming power, but he argues Leiden was a manipulator whose arrival benefitted from perfect timing during a perfect storm of fear and extreme disillusionment, and Waltz certainly exploits the theatrical side of a public speaker who uses words, physical displays and theatrical ploys to galvanize followers, but he also humanizes Leiden as man swept up in his own monstrous creation, riding a wave with giddy excitement.

Sebastian is both Leiden’s old, trusting friend, and conscience. Like a Shakespearean play, Leiden cannot exist without his better half, and the script somewhat separates what could be perceived as two halves of one person, creating a pair of extremes: a highly sexual, verbally outrageous dynamo; and a stoic, observant, pensive and patient figure who holds back any sexual desires and advances until the woman he loves – Engele – is free from Leiden’s influence.

Engele is completely overtaken by Leiden’s charisma and energy level, and when freed from her position as one of his wives after his death – a brutal torture regimen re-created by Toelle and Waltz in excruciating emotional detail – she’s still connected to his dream of an grand spiritual experience that lives on, albeit in more modest (and morally re-adjusted) form with Sebastian.

Some of Leiden’s culpability in heinous deeds are counterbalanced by showing Divara van Haarlem (sultry Spanish actress Charo Lopez) as an Iago-like woman whose suggestive chess moves not only aide Leiden in his rise to power, but ensure her own position as his Queen.

Boasting a great script, powerful performances from its mostly German and Spanish cast, riveting direction, a sweeping score by Wojciech Kilar (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and award-winning cinematography by Theo Bierkens, Konig der letzten Tage is part of a cluster of great historical mini-series produced during the late 80s and mid-90s. Whereas massive productions like Marco Polo (1982) and Peter the Great (1986) were aimed at the international marketplace, Konig was perhaps deemed too specific towards Germany’s Medieval history, and never travelled outside of Europe. (A lesser reason for its non-distribution in North America may also stem from Toelle’s no-holds barred used of nudity and violence. While not indulgent nor exploitive, the glaring moments of full frontal female nudity would’ve been a headache for American network and syndication censors.

ARD Video’s Region 2 PAL DVD features no English subtitles, and although Kilar’s soundtrack really benefits from the robust 2.0 sound mix, each part is housed on a single layer DVD in a non-anamorphic transfer with slight letterboxing. The longer director interview on Disc 2 does knock down Part 2’s bit rate, whereas the image quality on Disc 1 is less pinched from the short trailer montage and brief interview featurette with Adorf, taken as the actor was filming Leiden’s torture scene. (The abruptness of the interview leaves one to believe it’s an extract from a much longer interview featurette which remains unreleased.)

The DVDs sport decent transfers, but they’re clearly taken from 20 year old broadcast masters in need of an upgrade for the HD market. ARD Video’s digibook packaging includes cast and episode synopses, and a brief director profile peppered with production stills.

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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